Martin Feldstein, a South Side High School grad and economic adviser for President Reagan, dies at 79

Martin Feldstein, right, with David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, left, and Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan, before testifying on President Reagan’s budget in 1984.
Martin Feldstein, right, with David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, left, and Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan, before testifying on President Reagan’s budget in 1984.
Courtesy Associated Press

Martin Feldstein, a South Side High School graduate who served as a chief economic adviser for President Ronald Reagan, died of cancer on June 11. He was 79.

“Beyond being [a] world-renowned scholar, teacher and policy-maker,” Harvard University colleague Jeremy Stein wrote in an email to co-workers on June 11, “Marty was the pre-eminent bridge-builder in the economics profession, someone who did more to bring people and ideas together in a congenial way than just about anyone else. It’s an extraordinary legacy. I know we will all greatly miss his kindness, friendship and infectious enthusiasm for everything having to do with economics and public policy.”

Feldstein, who grew up in Rockville Centre, was the George F. Baker professor of economics at Harvard and president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, according to the bureau’s website. He served as president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit research organization from 1977 to 1982 and 1984 to 2008, and continued as a research associate after that.

James Poterba, the Mitsui professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who succeeded Feldstein as NBER’s president, recalled meeting him when he was a student at Harvard in 1978. Poterba worked with Feldstein as a research assistant, and later collaborated with him on research papers and projects.

“Marty was certainly one of the most influential and important economists of the last half century,” Poterba told the Herald.

Specifically, he noted, Feldstein’s research was key to advancing how social insurance systems — Social Security and unemployment insurance, for example — are understood. In the 1960s, he used data from the National Health Service to understand efficiencies in health care delivery.

“Today we think of questions like that as natural ones to ask . . . but he was really a pioneer in trying to bring together data on health care delivery and health outcomes,” Poterba said.

Feldstein was also among the first to use data from household surveys and corporate databases, documenting the way taxes affect the behavior of households and firms.

From 1982 to 1984, Feldstein was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and Reagan’s chief economic adviser. He served as president of the American Economic Association in 2004, and in 2006, President George W. Bush appointed him to the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, according to NBER’s website. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him to the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

“He was always thinking how to use economic tools and economic insights to improve public policy,” Poterba said. “That was something that for him was a lifelong mission.”

Bob Tunick, a fellow member of South Side High School’s class of 1957, said he and Feldstein were best friends at the time. “He was extremely bright,” Tunick said. “We used to play math games with each other and all that stuff. Let’s put it this way: Neither one of us was the most popular kid in this class.”

The two double-dated at their senior prom, held at South Side. Afterward, they went to a nightclub and then rode on Tunick’s parents’ boat until about 3 a.m., he recounted. He also remembered a time when Feldstein invited him and his friends to ride in his parents’ Buick shortly after they all got their driver’s licenses. “He said, ‘Hey look, I got 99,925 miles on the car,’” Tunick said. “He piled up as many people as we could get into that car and drove it around until we could turn it over to 100,000 miles. That was a big deal.”

“He was really a very nice guy,” Tunick added. “He was not a deep-rooted nerd like somebody might expect him to be.”

But he was certainly smart, said Bill Kandel, who also graduated from South Side in 1957 and now lives in Manhattan. Feldstein would act almost as “a second teacher in class,” he said, bringing magazines “that grown-ups read, way outside the textbook . . . and the teachers would eat it up.”

He and Feldstein ran against each other in school elections, Kandel said. Feldstein was the president of the senior class, and also served as president of Boys State, a statewide leadership program. “He never made people seem inferior, even though we all were,” Kandel said laughing.

Feldstein’s father died of cancer shortly after he graduated from South Side, and he decided he wanted to become a doctor to cure the disease, Tunick recalled. But, he added, Feldstein took an economics course at Harvard and was inspired to do that instead.

He graduated from Harvard in 1961 and earned a doctorate in economics from Oxford University, where he was an Official Fellow of Nuffield College. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1967, became a tenured professor of economics in 1969 and was appointed the George F. Baker professor of economics in 1984. He taught an introductory economics course, often the largest undergraduate course at the college, for about 20 years, Poterba said, adding that he was beloved by students and colleagues.

In 1977, Feldstein received the John Bates Clark Medal of the American Economic Association, according to NBER’s website, an award presented to an economist under the age of 40 judged to have made the greatest contribution to economic science.

That same year, as the bureau’s president, he started expanding and changing it, making it a stronger network, which today comprises about 1,600 scholars. He believed that enhanced communication among some of the best economists in the world, at conferences and by disseminating manuscripts, would advance research progress, Poterba said.

Feldstein was living in Belmont, Mass., when he died. He is survived by his wife, Kathleen, also an economist; his sister, Helen; two daughters and four grandchildren. 

“He was a hell of a guy, and he will be missed,” Tunick said. “There’s no question.”